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What is Swine Influenza?

Swine influenza is a respiratory infection caused by the H1N1 virus, which is a member of the Influenza A virus family. Originally, swine flu was limited primarily to pigs, although humans could become sickened upon direct contact with infected animals. However, a new strain called Novel H1N1 emerged that was shown to be a genetic combination of the swine, avian and human forms of the virus. This strain was responsible for the first human cases confirmed in April 2009.

Just like seasonal flu, transmission of the virus occurs by contact with infected individuals, through direct contact or by droplets left by coughing and sneezing, or infected surfaces. There is currently no vaccine against H1N1, and children have been found to be especially vulnerable to swine influenza. Government officials believe that the potential for pandemic is possible, although most cases of swine flu have been mild and manifest with similar symptoms to those found in seasonal flu.

Individuals who become infected with the virus are contagious one day before the start of illness and up to seven days after. Symptoms usually develop three to five days after exposure to H1N1 and may include a low grade fever, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion, body aches, headache, fatigue, and chills. Some have reported experiencing vomiting and diarrhea. Recent cases of swine influenza have been mild, although severe illness and death have been attributed to swine flu.

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As in seasonal flu, experts believe that certain groups may have higher predispositions towards disease, such as those suffering from chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease; individuals who are 65 years or older; pregnant women; and children younger than five years of age. Those who develop chest pain, experience difficulty breathing, frequent vomiting, confusion or dehydration should seek medical assistance immediately.

Good daily hygiene is the primary key towards managing the spread of swine influenza. Hand washing with soap and water and hand sanitizers with alcohol are effective methods of protection, and are especially important after coughing or sneezing. Also, individuals should cover mouth and nose with a tissue or hand while coughing and sneezing, as well as avoid contact with eyes, nose or mouth, where germs transmission is most likely. To prevent the spread of swine influenza, sick persons should stay home until symptom-free for at least 24 hours. For households with infected family members, designate one person to be the caretaker.

No vaccine exists yet to protect against swine influenza, although anti-viral medication such as oseltamivir or zanamivir may be an effective treatment if used within 48 hours after symptoms occur. The CDC advises individuals infected with H1N1 to stay home and rest, drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and taking pain relievers such as acetaminophen if necessary.

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